Night Terrors and Children
Christine Oriani, LCSW, Guest Blogger, is a clinical therapist with Embrace Therapy with exceptional therapeutic skills working with adults and children. She was recently interviewed on night terrors and children and provided strong therapeutic insight to help parents navigate a potentially emotionally charged experience for their child and for the parents.
1. What causes nightmares? What are some common triggers?
Overall nightmares are the manifestation of our overwhelmed emotions; in this case, fear, expressed during the REM state. Nightmares often occur during a stressful time in a child’s life. Subtle and significant shifts in a child’s life from divorce to starting a new school can provoke nightmares in children. Sometimes, there are themes in the nightmares that can be observed by a therapist to help identify the core concerns or worries.
2. Are there any common nightmare themes that you’ve seen in children?
Nightmares appear mostly during the preschool age (ages 3-6) a period of development when children’s imaginations are busy and normal fears are forming. Common nightmares could be classified into “monsters” but can vary depending on the fears developed by the child.
3. What are some coping strategies to help children deal with nightmares?
The most important coping strategy to help children deal with nightmares is empathy and validation. Nightmares are life-like to our children and the fear they are experiencing is real. Validating a child’s fear and loving on them with some good ‘ol TLC is just what I would order!
In addition, other strategies would be using a “monster spray” to spray away any “monsters” before bedtime. Feel free to sub in your child’s fear (“spider spray” “clown spray” etc.) Other children may respond to a dream catcher over their sleeping space or working with a caregiver to retell the story of their dream changing elements that are more favorable. Simply, ask your child what he or she believes may help cope with nightmares. Children are very intuitive and may be able to share their belief that a special stuffed animal, an open bedroom door or a nightlight would help comfort themselves.
Lastly, to approach nightmares proactively if they are a chronic issue I would suggest relaxation prior to bedtime. Utilizing a relaxation technique such as deep breathing, guided imagery or meditation with your child before bed could reduce how stressed your child feels, and this could change the emotion that will influence their dreams!
4. How can a parent tell if nightmares are a cause for concern? What should they do?
Nightmares rarely warrant intervention in a child’s life. If at any time nightmares are distressing, repetitious or are related to trauma, bring your child to the pediatrician for further assessment. Normal nightmares occur during the REM stage several hours after a child falls asleep. Night terrors are intense nightmares that occur 1-2 hours after a child falls asleep and are accompanied by the following symptoms: screaming, unable to console child, difficult to awaken the child. Night terrors can be frightening for parents, but children do not remember the event.